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Animalia: Horror with (Emotional) Teeth and Claws

Written By Avra Margariti

Avra Margariti is a queer author and Pushcart-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Strange Horizons, F&SF, The Deadlands, Vastarien, and Reckoning. Avra lives and studies in Athens, Greece. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).

Canines and talons and beaks. Prowling, biting, clawing. A pair of red eyes in a field, a fin disappearing underwater, a blackbird’s caw of doom. Animal imagery is used in horror often to increase the fear factor through humanity’s natural fear of predator species and the wild unknown. Sometimes it goes even deeper than that, past base instinct, to a many-layered symbolism that borrows its traits from the animal kingdom. The animal as a mirror image to humankind, or an anthropomorphized version of us. An emotionally heavy metaphor, or a psychosomatic manifestation. More than anything, a haunting.

In Lowry Poletti’s “The Dead Return in Strange Shapes” (Fantasy Magazine), an orphaned young man named Thais can see the souls of the departed, who live a second half-life on earth in the form of various animals. He is haunted by a lone wolf, a dead warrior who speaks to his own loneliness, but he cannot bring himself to embrace what the wolf means to him. In that way, Thais’ inner world is also reflected in the solitary, ignored, restless animals. Thais goes on a journey with a strange man—god, creature—who too is haunted by the tiger draped around his neck who is ghost and familiar, hated and beloved. A lot of Poletti’s stories revolve around animals who are eerie and human-like in their passions and devotions, while the roles of predator and prey often get mixed up and reversed, with philosophical repercussions.

Meanwhile, in Kel Coleman’s “I Wear My Spiders in Remembrance of Myself” (Apparition Lit) and S. Qiouyi Lu’s “Anything Resembling Love“(Tor) people contain insects inside them—in the former story, spiders and in the latter, centipedes. In both worlds, it is taboo to mention the insects in polite company; to acknowledge that human bodies can produce those insects when triggered by an emotional stimulus. The stories work in conversation with each other: both center young characters trying to navigate the rules of their worlds, then rejecting them as unfair, and learning to name that unfairness. Other themes include dealing with bigotry, rigid societal norms, rape culture, and breaking the binds of propriety when it is used to conceal and excuse heinous things.

Tamara Jerée’s “A Serpent for Each Year” (Strange Horizons) is a small story that packs a big emotional punch. “Our relationship is almost a year old when I ask Nal why she is covered in snakes.” The narrator learns that the reason why Nal wears these snakes is because her mother put them on her body to protect her before she died. The snakes speak of survival, but also grief, concealment. The story of two new lovers and the way their bodies—and cultures—operate is both tender and melancholy (also a bit grotesque) in the best combination possible.

Snakes also make an appearance in Priya Sharma’s “Fabulous Beasts” (Tor), a dark, devastating story about escaping familial abuse and embracing monstrosity—in the self, and the other. Animals appear often in Sharma’s horror short fiction, another notable example being The Crow Palace” (The Dark). It is a story about sisters and, as the opening line informs us (“Birds are tricksters.”), about feathered, wily things. Julie, a successful, determined woman, must return home after the death of her father, who had built a palace for Corvidae in his backyard. There, she must reckon with the past—her and her twin’s conception and true nature—as well as the town’s increasingly erratic behavior toward her and her family. Most of the stories in Priya Sharma’s collection (All the Fabulous Beasts from Undertow Publications) feature the animal kingdom in a meaningful, and often chilling, capacity.

Lastly, in Alyssa Wong’s Rabbit Heart(in the late Fireside), an underground scientist uses rabbit stem cells to illegally revive the dead so they can fulfill the family expectations they failed to meet in life. As the story progresses, it becomes clear how much the characters match the rabbit’s elegance, and the rabbit’s cowardice.

Animals can often represent monstrosity, but also our innate human nature pushed to an intriguing extreme. It allows for stories and characters to be viewed through a lens removed from conformity to societal norms. Symbolism arising from, and merging with, animal traits and behaviors can open new storytelling windows, especially when it comes to horror and dark fiction.